Evaluating the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court is viewed favorably by 57% of Americans, down sharply from a high of 72% in January. This represents the lowest favorability rating for the court since June 2005. Even in the midst of the contentious debate over the October 2005 nomination of Harriet Miers to replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, favorability ratings were five points higher than they are today.

As has consistently been the case in recent years, Republicans view the court more favorably than do Democrats or independents. More than seven-in-10 Republicans (73%) see the court in mostly or very favorable light, compared with 58% of independents and fewer than half of all Democrats (49%). Since January, Supreme Court favorability is down across party lines, though most steeply among Democrats (-17 points) and independents (-16 points).

There is no public consensus regarding the ideological balance of the current court: 36% say the court is conservative, while 35% say it is “middle-of-the-road.” Only 14% see the Supreme Court as liberal. However, views differ substantially by party. A plurality of Republicans (44%) sees the Supreme Court as middle of the road, while 26% say it is conservative. Almost half of Democrats (48%) describe the court as conservative, while just 28% say it is middle of the road. Relatively few in either party see the current balance on the Supreme Court as liberal.

There also is no consensus about whether President Bush’s appointments to the court have made the court more conservative (36%) or had no effect on its political balance (41%). (Samuel Alito was confirmed in January 2006, replacing O’Connor, who often served as a swing vote on the Court. John Roberts replaced Rehnquist as chief justice in September 2005.) Very few people see the recent appointees as having made the court more liberal (7%).

Democrats are only slightly more likely than are Republicans to say Bush’s appointees have shifted the court in a more conservative direction (41% versus 34%). Republicans are somewhat more likely to see the newcomers as having made no change to the court’s politics (47% vs. 37% of Democrats). Views of the direction of the court are linked to overall evaluations of the institution. Democrats who believe the Supreme Court has become more conservative under Bush are far less likely to rate the court favorably (40%) than Democrats who think things haven’t changed much (58%). Republicans who believe the court has moved to the right offer more favorable reviews (83%) than Republicans who see no change (71%).

The Supreme Court made several high-profile decisions during its recently concluded term on controversial topics including abortion, school desegregation and restrictions on ads during political campaigns. More Americans say they approve of the court’s recent decisions than disapprove. However, many Americans, 36%, either had not heard about the court’s work or didn’t have an opinion of the decisions either way. Nevertheless, Republicans are almost twice as likely as Democrats to approve of the court’s rulings.